How to Potty Train a Toddler: The Complete Guide

The complete guide on how to potty train a toddler is for parents who are ready to begin the journey of potty training their toddlers.

There is a lot to think about like when to start potty training, picking the right method, what tools you need to get started and so much more. This guide will answer your most pressing questions and give you help along your journey.

While it is true that boys potty train differently than girls, there are a lot of similarities.

Follow along as we talk about the best ways to get started potty training boys and girls.

Table Of Contents

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When to start potty training

A major milestone for toddlers is learning how to use the potty. But the key to their success is knowing when to start potty training.

Are you changing fewer diapers? Is your toddler interested in what you’re doing in the bathroom? These could be signs that they’re ready to get started.

Toddlers are usually ready for potty training anywhere from 18 months to 36 months. But don’t be surprised if it takes your toddler longer.

Instead of relying on their age to indicate when to start potty training, you should use signs of emotional, cognitive and motor skills readiness.

These tips should be a general guideline for assessing the readiness of your toddler.

Emotional readiness

  • Shows interest in the potty

Cognitive readiness

  • Understands what pee and poop are and when their body is doing those functions
  • Can follow 2-3 step directions
  • Can sit on the potty for a few minutes without running off
  • Tells you when they have to “go”
  • Tells you when they’ve had an accident

Motor skills readiness

  • Can remove easy on/off pants and underwear
  • Can wash hands

How long does potty training take?

The important thing to remember is that every child is different, so how long it takes will heavily depend on their own biological clock.

It can take 3-6 months for some toddlers to be completely potty trained while it may take a few years for others.

The good news is that it will happen. I promise you they won’t still be potty training at eighth-grade graduation.

When NOT to start potty training

Life transitions can be hard on all of us, but especially on a young child.

Kids often don’t know how to express their emotions or how to make parents aware that they need some extra TLC.

When big life events happen like moving, adding new family members to your family like having a new baby, a parent getting married, or a death in the family, these are times to steer away from potty training.

This is because these changes already require some getting use to. Adding potty training into the equation can be a recipe for disaster.

There may be more bedwetting, more resistance and it may just take longer overall.

Other times NOT to begin potty training can be before your toddler is able to control their bodily functions, if they are sick, if they are starting a new daycare or switching babysitters, or if they are just flat out not interested.

toddler girl standing next to toilet. Image says how to potty train the right way

Helpful potty training methods

Ready to get started potty training?

First you’ll need to pick a potty training method.

Here are some of the most popular methods that work for many parents.

  1. Wait-it-out method This method involves waiting until you are sure your child is ready to start potty training. Often this means you won’t start the process of potty training until your toddler is at least three so that they are mature enough to understand important concepts and control bodily functions.
  2. Child-led potty training is another method that involves waiting, but in this instance, you’re letting your toddler take the lead. They get to decide when they’re ready to start potty training. Doing things this way means less resistance and hesitation and could result in faster potty training.
  3. 3-day potty training method This method is popular because it promises to potty train your toddler in only three days. It is a really intense three days that involve not leaving the house and focusing on nothing but potty training. If you are short on time to get your toddler potty trained give this method a try.

Read more about these three potty training methods in the No Nonsense Potty Training Methods that Work guide.

Picking the right potty

Its time to pock the potty chair your toddler will use.

There are several different potty types you can choose from. Read the descriptions to learn the pros and cons of each type so you can choose the best potty training seat for your toddler.

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  1. Stand-alone potty chair. This potty chair is right at toddler height making it easy for toddlers to sit and stand at it without assistance. The major drawback to this kind of potty chair is that it has to be cleaned out after each use.
  2. Small toilet seat. Toilet seats for potty training are made to be a smaller version of a regular toilet seat that fits over the hole in an adult-sized toilet. Toddlers usually use a separate step stool to reach the toilet and can sit on the small toilet seat without falling in. One con of using this kind of training seat is that some toddlers are afraid of larger toilets so they are hesitant to sit on the “big potty.”
  3. Potty training seat with ladder. This type of potty seat is made with a ladder already attached so that your toddler can climb it without assistance and sit on the child-sized toilet seat. Potty training seats with ladders usually include handles to help with stability and fold when not in use. Although they fold for storage, this kind of training seat can take up a lot of space in a small bathroom.

Training pants or underwear?

Once you’ve chosen the potty training method that’s right for your toddler and you’ve decided on the type of potty to use, the next question you’ll have is should your toddler use training pants or underwear?

The difference between training pants and underwear is that training pants are made with extra absorbency so when accidents happen, there is not a huge mess like with underwear.

We’ve covered this topic extensively in the training pants vs underwear guide, but here’s the most important points to consider:

  • Training pants can be disposable or reusable
  • Reusable training pants have a bigger up-front investment, but cost less than reusable brands over time
  • Some parents prefer underwear so as not to cause confusion with training pants that feel and function similar to a diaper.

Invest in the type of undergarments that you think will help your toddler the best and that will fit with your lifestyle.

If you don’t have a lot of time or patience for cleaning up accidents, pick training pants and spare yourself a lot of frustration.

If you have time and want to avoid any chance of confusion, then go with the underwear.

Potty Supplies you’ll need

Technically, all you need is a willing toddler and a potty to get the job done. But you’re here because you want to make potty training as easy as possible so we’d recommended a few other things that will make the process a lot smoother. Read the full list of handy potty tools in the complete potty training essentials guide after you’ve gotten the basics listed here.

Basic potty training essentials

  1. Potty or toilet seat
  2. Wipes
  3. Timer
  4. Step stool
  5. Big kid undies
  6. Potty chart and stickers
  7. Small rewards

Also, don’t forget you can totally skip out on the potty tools that don’t apply to you.

How to get toddlers to poop in the potty

Some toddlers don’t have any trouble and can poop in the potty from the beginning. Others take a while to make the transition from pooping in their diaper to pooping in the potty, and that’s okay.

If your toddler is hesitant to do number two, here are some ways to encourage them.

  • Sit on the potty after each meal to encourage elimination
  • When they look like they are about to poop in their underpants, take them to the potty right away
  • Offer lots of praise when they do poop in the potty
  • If constipation is a problem, give them food to help them poop easier
  • Use a stool to help them get in the right position to poop
  • Read books about pooping in the potty
  • Let them see you dump poop from their diaper or underwear into the potty so they’ll see where it belongs

Most of all, remember to be patient and never shame your toddler. They will progress when they are ready.

Rewards for the win!

We’re huge advocates of using rewards when toddlers have a successful trip to the bathroom!

As adults, we like to be rewarded for a job well done and toddlers are no different.

One opposing school of thought says that using rewards makes toddlers dependent on them and they won’t want to go potty or wash their hands once you stop rewarding them.

We say nonsense!

Have you ever met a teenager who wouldn’t use the bathroom without a reward?

Didn’t think so.

Don’t be afraid to have a bucket of small rewards handy to you can encourage your toddler to keep up the good work every they take care of business.

Potty training schedule

There are as many potty training schedules as there are methods.

If there is are too many options out there and you are having a hard time narrowing down which method you think would work best for your toddler, use this general potty training schedule as a starting place.

You can implement this schedule and if it works for you and your toddler as-is, great!

However, if a few things aren’t clicking you can take the schedule and adjust it to fit your needs better.

Remember, this is a basic potty training schedule to give you somewhere to begin.

The key to being successful with any schedule is to prepare in advance.

Pick a day you want to start and in the days leading up to your start date, start talking to your toddler about what will happen so they won’t be blindsided.

Read books about using the potty, talk about how big kids no longer use diapers, show them all the new potty gear they’ll get to use and make it exciting!

Sample potty training schedule

You’ve been talking to your toddler about getting rid of the diaper for a few days now and the time has come. Let them remove their (clean) diaper one last time and toss it in the trash so they feel in control.

Begin the day on the potty after waking up in the morning.

Throughout the day, set a timer to remind them to go at regular intervals like every 30-45 minutes.

Make sure they potty after each meal and snack.

Make sure they use the potty right before nap time and right before bed.

If necessary, let them wear training pants like Peejamas during naps to minimize cleanup from accidents.

This loose potty training schedule should give you a comfortable place to jump into potty training and allow enough flexibility to tweak things to fit your toddler’s learning style best.

Using incentives for potty training

Potty training incentives are different from potty rewards because incentives are used to make toddlers familiar with the process and encourage them to get started.

Once they’ve begun potty training and are making progress, rewards would then be used to keep their excitement up and encourage them to keep going.

Incentives can be used before you even start potty training and we recommend using them to get your toddler ready.

Here are a few ideas of things that could be used as incentives:

Common mistakes parents make when potty training

You know when to start potty training, how to pick the best method for your toddler, incentives and rewards to use and a schedule to get you started.

But there are some common mistakes that many parents make.

It’s wise to be aware of these mistakes so you don’t make them.

  • Being negative – One way to discourage your child from using the potty is to display negativity towards them and the process. Phrases like “why can’t you get this right,” or “I knew you couldn’t do it” only hinder their progress. Instead of using negative language when things aren’t working, say things like “that’s okay, we can try again next time,,” and “you’ve been working hard to learn how to use the potty. I’m so proud of you.”
  • Being aggressive – Using negative language isn’t the only way to discourage your toddler. Your tone can be aggressive as well and cause them to not want to try or to give up. Don’t yell, or argue with your toddler to get your way. Always remain calm and talk to them with respect and understanding.
  • Rushing the process – Many parents think they can make potty training happen on their own time frame. While it can happen in some instances, you’ll be setting yourself up for disappointment if you think it can be rushed. You’re dealing with a child with limited control over their body and emotions. Trying to rush them to do something they may not be ready for will end up with you and them both being resentful, which can make the whole process take that much longer.
  • Comparing them to others – You’ll be the one disappointed and frustrated if you take this route. It may be tempting, but never compare your child to another child, whether it’s a friend’s toddler or one of your other children. The fact is that all kids develop differently. One toddler will learn quickly while another may not develop the skills to be successful until months later–and that’s okay. If you feel it is taking your child an unnaturally long time to learn how to use the potty, talk to their pediatrician for guidance.
  • Thinking there’s only one right way – Even if you have three older children who were all successful using one potty training method, that doesn’t mean your current child will be. There is nothing wrong with them for doing it a different way. Some kids respond well to certain methods and other kids respond better to other methods. Save yourself some sanity and choose what’s best for your toddler as an individual.
  • Starting too soon – We touched on this earlier, but it’s worth repeating. Beginning to potty train too soon can have a domino effect. Your toddler may not be ready and therefore get discouraged. This makes you frustrated and you start acting and speaking negatively. This makes them recoil even more from the potty and learning how to use it and it becomes a vicious cycle. It’s better to wait until your child is physically and emotionally ready to avoid a lot of drama.
  • Forcing it – Forcing your toddler to potty train can be just as big a mistake as making them start too soon. Making them sit on the potty for hours to try to force them to use it when they don’t have to or are too scared can be devastating. Let them sit and try for a reasonable amount of time, but don’t force extended time on the potty or they will become resentful.
  • Limiting drinks or food – Some parents feel that by limiting drinks, they are lessening the chances of accidents. But this can cause other problems. Without proper food and drink a toddler can become malnourished and dehydrated. It is better to let them eat and drink normally and have them make more frequent trips to the bathroom to avoid accidents.

Potty training problems to watch for

The problems mentioned above can be caused by well-meaning parents, but they can be avoided.

These next issues are things that may happen that aren’t directly caused by you, but you should be watching for.

  • Regression – Potty training regression is real and it’s more normal than you may think. Things can be moving along nicely and then all of a sudden your toddler stops using the potty altogether and starts to pee or poop in their underwear again. When this happens it could be because of a significant life even that has recently happened, some kind of trauma, or it may just be a normal part of their training cycle. If you notice regression in your toddler talk to them and ask them how they are feeling and think about if there have been any big life changes recently. This can be overcome, it just takes time.
  • Refusal to sit on the potty – If your toddler refuses to sit on the potty know that this is common. Some reasons could be that they are afraid of the toilet or they just aren’t emotionally ready to start the process. Whatever the reason, give them time and space to adjust to the idea of using the bathroom outside of their diaper. Read books about using the toilet and gently encourage them. They’ll go when the time is right.
  • Hard poop and constipation – Being constipated is no fun, especially for a young child who is still learning how to control their bowel movements. It can be painful and in some cases, require medical attention. Always be on the lookout for these signs and symptoms of constipation:
    • Refusal to use the potty for more than peeing
    • Crying during bowel movements
    • Blood in the stool
    • Hard grunts that produce only small pebbles of poop

Any of these can be a sign that your child is constipated. Call your doctor and ask for ways to help ease constipation and about foods that help a toddler to poop.

How to potty train at night and nap time

A lot of toddlers are not able to control their bodies in their sleep so they have nighttime accidents.

If you are concerned about your toddler wetting the bed during naps or overnight, there are some easy ways to help them feel more comfortable and to make it easier on yourself.

  • Use training pants, but treat them like underwear – Whether you’ve chosen to use underwear or training pants for potty training, during sleeping hours use training pants. They are more absorbent to help keep your toddler dry while they sleep and they’ll keep you from having to do extra laundry each day. However, you should treat the training pants like underwear. They should still pull them up and down to use the potty and not rely on them like a diaper when they are awake.
  • Wear absorbent pajamas – If your toddler wants to feel like a big kid and wear underwear to bed, let them wear absorbent pajamas like Peejamas that are made with underwear sewn in. They’ll catch any accidents and still keep your tot feeling like a big kid.
  • Pee right before going to bed and soon as waking up – Let your child empty their bladder right before going to bed to help cut down on accidents and as they wake up so it becomes a routine habit.
  • Use a waterproof mattress cover – Accidents will happen. Be prepared by already having their mattress protected with a cover that can be easily washed and reused.

Remember, a toddler hasn’t necessarily gained full control of their bladder which can make it harder to control staying dry during naps.

This is perfectly normal and with patience and understanding from parents, they will eventually get it.

Potty training while out of the house

One thing that will be inevitable is that you’ll have to leave your house at some point while potty training.

You may be wondering how you’ll handle navigating public bathrooms with your toddler and them having to potty while traveling.

Follow these tips to help you with potty training while out the house traveling with your toddler:

  1. Pee before leaving the house – No matter how short the trip will be, make sure your toddler uses the bathroom before leaving the house. This is the number one way to try to make it back home without any accidents.
  2. Use a traveling potty – Second to peeing before leaving the house, having a traveling potty is the next most important thing to remember. On long car rides, you can use the car potty between rest stops to avoid accidents. They can also be useful if your child is fearful of public toilets that automatically flush. Let them potty in the car before going into a public place. An alternative to full-size traveling potty chairs are travel pee cups for boys and girls. They’re smaller and more portable.
  3. Keep a traveling potty kit in your vehicle – It’s always a good idea to keep certain staples in your car for cleanups and accidents. Keep must-haves like wipes, toilet seat covers (for public toilets) and a small folding potty seat to go on top of large public toilets.

Top potty training tips for eager parents

Now, we know that getting your toddler potty trained is really important right now.

This guide offers a lot of helpful ideas about getting started, but if you’re eager to start right away, use these tips to get started now.

  • Get your family involved – More hands on deck makes easier work. Find out ways your whole family can help your toddler potty train whether through encouragement, talks or helping them reach the sink to wash their hands.
  • Lots of “potty talk” – Have lots of conversations about the potty before you even start training. Talk about how one day they’ll stop using their diaper and start using big kid underwear. Talk about what happens when they pee and poop in the potty, how it’s a normal bodily function and anything else to ease them into potty training. Keep the conversation going once you start potty training, too!
  • Let your toddler watch you – That right. Sometimes kids learn better by seeing, not just be hearing. Give your toddler a chance to see how mommy or daddy uses the toilet so they can see how it’s done and make them more familiar with the process.
  • Let your toddler sit on the potty – …even if they don’t actually have to use it. Getting familiar with the potty is key to their success. Once you have a potty or a toddler sized toilet seat, if they show interest in it allow them to sit on and play around with it so they will feel comfortable with the idea of using it once it’s time.
  • Don’t show anxiety – Showing anxiety and frustration with your child’s lack of process can have a negative effect. It may stress your toddler out and create anxiety in them and this could make them not want to go. Holding pee and poop in for too long can cause constipation, so try to make this as stress-free as possible for them.
  • Be prepared for accidents – No matter what method you choose, know that accidents will happen. Some toddlers will have more accidents than others. Knowing this will help you approach potty training with patience and the right attitude and keep the frustration at bay.
  • Communicate with other caregivers – If your toddler has a babysitter or goes to daycare or preschool, it’s important to communicate with those caregivers the plan that you’ve set in place to potty train your toddler. They can keep the efforts going while your toddler is with them so they won’t forget everything you’ve been working on at home.

The bottom line is let your toddler follow their own pace when learning how to potty train. You’ll offer guidance and show them the right way to do things, but success ultimately comes down to being patient and letting them potty train in their own time.

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